Lost in Translation 287: Carmen Sandiego

It’s almost a truism that video game adaptations are horrible. The early entries set the tone. The problem for most of these adaptations is that what works for game play doesn’t work as a narrative, especially with older games. Pac-Man was about gobbling dots and running away from ghosts; characterization is minimal; Super Mario Bros. is about travelling through a series of death traps to find a missing princess. Naturally, there are exceptions.

Meanwhile, educational software exists to teach a subject, not necessarily be memorable. Oregon Trail, one of the earliest educational computer games, first released in 1971, is memorable because of the difficulty of getting across the continental US in the mid-1800s. The difficulty was what the game was teaching. Gamification helps students learn concepts, from history to typing to geography. While Oregon Trail is memorable, it really only appeared in schools. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, however, was commercially available and not only became a hit, it became a franchise.

The original Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was created and released in 1985 by Brøderbund as a way to teach geography and research skills to children aged 8 to 12. The player, who was considered to be an agent for the Acme Detective Agency, had to decipher clues left by Carmen and her henchmen to figure out where they were and what they were about to do, all based on real world geography. Each successful case brought the player closer to Carmen herself. The names given to characters were all based on puns, starting a trend that continues through the franchise. The original game sold well for Brøderbund, leading to sequels including Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego in 1986, Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego in 1988, and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego in 1989, the last one adding history to the education provided.

As seen with many adaptations, if a work gets popular, someone will want to adapt it into a different medium. With Carmen, the core premise – a detective tracking down a master criminal – lends itself to adaptation far better than eating dots. However, the game is meant to be educational, so the first network to pick it up was PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. The result was a TV game show for kids the same age as the computer game aimed for with Lynne Thigpen as the Chief and Greg Lee as the host, and the theme song by Rockapella. The players were agents for the Acme Detective Agency, tracking Carmen and her henchmen around the world. similar to the original game, though in a competition. The game show ran from 1991 to 1995, winning several Daytime Emmy awards and a Peabody before becoming Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego from 1996 to 1997.

While the game show aired, a series of eight books based on the video games were published. Written by John Peel, the books were a series of “choose your own adventure” novels using the titles of the video games. Peel kept to the tradition of puns for the names of his crooks as, once again, the reader became the Acme Detective Agency agent assigned to track Carmen and her henchmen as they left clues around the world.

By the mid-Ninties, Carmen was a household word. The inevitable happened and DiC studios produced an animated adaptation for Saturday mornings on Fox. The creators, aware of the violence in the other series Fox aired, such as X-Men, were concerned, but DiC created Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego without relying on or using violence to solve a problem. Replacing the player were siblings Zack (voiced by Scott Melville) and Ivy (Jennifer Hale), a pair of Acme agents charged with tracking down Carmen, voiced by Rita Moreno, and her army of henchmen. This time, instead of just being a master thief working for VILE, Carmen is a former Acme agent and steals for the challenge of the theft. This series would be the first where Carmen had a voice instead of just being glimpsed. With the new series, a new theme song based on a work by Mozart. The cartoon won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program in 1995.

Through every iteration, while Carmen has been the subject of the work, she wasn’t the star. For the games, the main character was the player, chasing Carmen and her crew. With the adaptations, it was the same thing, Carmen was the thief to be caught and not the lead character. However, with no Carmen, there’s no adaptation. The eternal chase is a valid approach to entertainment, ranging from Road Runner cartoons through to The Pink Panther movies, which focused on a bumbling detective searching for a thief. The format can get stale when overused. No one is hoping that Wile E. Coyote catches the Road Runner; that’s the end of the series. A villain who always gets away can get old, especially over a long run; see also, Batman and the Joker.

However, it is possible to turn the eternal chase around, focusing on the pursued instead of the pursuer. The gentleman thief, motivated by the challenge or by a personal code of morals and honour, has appeared in literature, film, and television. Arsène Lupin, Danny Ocean and his team in Ocean’s Eleven, Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, the Leverage crew, and Hitomi, Rui, and Ai from the manga Cat’s Eye show the range of gentleman and gentlewoman thieves in entertainment. The draw is competence porn, watching an expert do their job well, while still being able to root for the hero even if the hero is breaking the law.

With a show aimed at children, there’s a fine line to tread. There are few people who want to be responsible for telling kids that it’s okay to steal. Carmen Sandiego, though, is a master thief. Every adaptation has kept her as a master thief. It’s one of the character’s defining elements, along with the red hat and trench coat. At the same time, Carmen is the draw. It’s a delicate balance. Enter Netflix.

In 2019, Netflix, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DHX Media teamed up to bring Carmen Sandiego back to television with the series Carmen Sandiego. Carmen (Gina Rodriguez), with the help of white hat hacker Player (Finn Wolfhard) and siblings Ivy (Abby Trott) and Zack (Michael Hawley), is turning the tables on VILE, stealing artifacts from them to return to their rightful owners. Carmen is still being chased, but she’s now the lead, not the pursuers. She is still a master thief, one who steals without hurting anyone, even if they are from VILE.

The first two episodes go into who in the world is Carmen Sandiego. After a successful theft under the eyes of Interpol agents Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi) and Julia Argent (Charlet Chung) in Poiteiers, France, Carmen gets tracked down by former classmate and VILE thief, Gray (Michael Goldsmith). She and Gray were in the same class at VILE’s academy for thieves, along with four other recruits. At the time, Carmen was known as Black Sheep, a temporary code name until graduation. While Gray and her other classmates were recruits, Carmen grew up on VILE’s island. Coach Brunt (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) took Carmen in as a baby and encouraged her in learning about the world and how to steal. Despite her age, Carmen was one of the top thieves despite not being a student. VILE’s head council votes to accept her as a student.

As she grew up, Carmen engaged in a number of pranks, culminating with the annual water balloon bombing of VILE’s accountant, Cookie Booker, voiced by Rita Moreno. In one of the bombings, Cookie dropped her smartphone without noticing. Carmen did notice and grabbed it to add to her small stash of items. Any sort of cell phone is verboten for students to have on VILE’s island, though, so when it rings, Carmen is startled and answers it to get to be quiet. At the other end of the line is Player, a white hat hacker from Niagara Falls. While Player was just trying to let someone know of an exploitable hole in security, he and Carmen build a friendship over the phone over the years. She teaches him about different cultures through people passing through the island and he teaches her about the nature of white hat hackerism.

When it’s time for the final exams, Carmen aces all but one test. The one she failed, she believes Shadow-san (Paul Nakauchi) deliberately set her up to fail. She’s told she’s not allowed to go with her classmates on their first mission, but Carmen wasn’t always one for rules. Carmen sneaks on board VILE’s helicopter, stowing away. The catch is that she wasn’t there for the briefing or the planning session, where the way to the crime scene was by parachute. Carmen hitches a ride with Grey on the way down, though and runs off to try to find VILE’s target, an archaeological dig that has unearthed the Eye of Vishnu.

Talking with the archaeologist lets Carmen discover that there is something more valuable than money, knowledge. Before she can get too far into a discussion, though, her classmates arrive. They knock out the workers onsite, but are spotted by Carmen and the archeologist. The orders the new VILE thieves have include the command, “No witnesses.” Carmen, though, can’t let that happen and fights against her former classmates.

Carmen loses the fight and is brought back to VILE’s island. She’s forced to repeat her final year. During this time, though, Carmen plots a way to get off the island with the help of Player. Her goal, to not just escape, but to take the hard drive Cookie delivers once a year. Barring the helicopter, Cookie’s boat is the only way off the island. Carmen steals the hard drive, steals Cookie’s red hat and coat, and gets her name.

Back in the present, Carmen deals with her former classmate and friend Grey. Chase has managed to keep up with the two despite the damage he’s done to his car during the pursuit. Instead of Carmen, he gets Grey. Back at the crime scene, Julia discovers that nothing of value was stolen even though Carmen was seen with a sack holding something. Julia doesn’t have proof, but given that the vault holding the Eye of Vishnu also contained several other stolen objects, and that the owner of the building, a numbered company, was also the registered owner of a number of other locations that Carmen has hit, she believes that Carmen isn’t the usual thief and may have a goal of getting stolen items returned to their rightful owners. Why else would a thief be so brazen to wear red and let herself be seen by Interpol agents?

Over the rest of the episodes, Carmen maintains her private war against VILE. She’s not the only one after them; a secretive group called ACME, headed by the Chief (Dawnn Lewis) is trying to find proof of VILE’s existence. Carmen is the only link they have and Chase is the only Interpol agent who can identify her. ACME recruits Chase and Julia to find both Carmen and VILE. Chase is driven to arrest the infamous thief to the point where he is oblivious to senior VILE personnel when he’s in the middle of them. Julia is the brains of the partnership. but she isn’t able to maintain the pursuit to the degree Chase can. Both become valuable gumshoes for ACME.

The biggest change in the new Carmen Sandiego is that Carmen, the draw of the franchise, is finally the lead. The games, from first release in 1985 to the Google Earth game, and even in the animated series, Carmen was the pursued, but the main characters were the detectives after her, from the game’s player to stand-ins for them. The series doesn’t ask where Carmen is but who Carmen is. VILE is still the villain and ACME is back as the primary agency hunting. Dawnn Lewis’ Chief is modelled off Lynne Thigpen’s from the game show.

The series is aimed at the same age group the original games, the PBS game show, and even the DiC animated series were. This time around, though, there’s a few extras for the parents of the new audience, people who played the games or watched the shows in the Eighties and Nineties. Little references here and there, ones that can be shared with the younger generation, pop up in the course of the series, including a They Might Be Giants one in the first episode.

The new Carmen is still an educational series, focusing on geography and cultures around the world. The lessons tie into the plot of the episode, giving the reason why VILE has the evil scheme and why Carmen wants to stop them. The presentation of the facts come from both Carmen and Player, who share an interest in cultures not their own. Accents are genuine, though presented as to be understood by the young audience. The characters are diverse; Interpol, ACME, and VILE are all equal opportunity employers.

The pun-based names have been eased back a bit, but they still exist, if a bit more subtle. Grey had to be dissuaded from calling himself Graham Crackle. Cookie Booker, the accountant and bookkeeper, cooks VILE’s books. Paper Star (Kimiko Glenn) throws star-shaped origami shuriken. Dr. Saira Bellum (Sharon Muthu) is on VILE’s head council and is their technical expert and inventor. Chase is dogged in his pursuit of Carmen. The spy and snitch Mime Bomb is a mime (and, thus, has no voice actor).

The new Carmen solves the big problem of the eternal pursuit; if the pursued is caught, what happens to the series? With Carmen as the lead, the audience doesn’t have to deal with the main characters constantly being eluded despite all their efforts. The series allows the audience to root for Carmen, so the tension isn’t will this be the episode where she gets caught but how close will she get to being caught before she escapes. Carmen herself is shown to be competent and capable, so any gumshoe who gets close enough to see her let alone try to arrest her will be a worthy challenger. Chase, for all his shortcomings, is still a capable agent. Julia shores up the skills Chase is missing. Combined, the two give Carmen a challenge.

The series, while being its own work, gives nods to previous versions. The new Carmen received advice from Cookie, played by the first actor to give the character a voice. Carmen also steals her signature red hat and coat from Cookie, further cementing the hand off to the new generation. Player is a nod not just to the people who played the games but to the kid seen at the beginning of episodes of the DiC series. The theme music from the DiC series makes an appearance as elevator music. The new Carmen has more violence, with her and VILE agents battling it out. Most of the time, though, the VILE agents initiate the fights against Carmen and her team. Carmen is a thief, not a thug.

Carmen Sandiego is its own work, but it builds upon the franchise in such a way to be part of it instead of separate. Placing Carmen as the lead allows for the series to tell new stories while still bringing the elements that are expected of it.


This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.

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Thanks to our friends at Seventh Sanctumfor letting us share this content.


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